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A blizzard of troubles

A blizzard of troubles

Mar 21, 2008

They missed classes and gave up sleep, but Kettering's SAE Clean Snowmobile team managed to re-engineer their engine just three weeks before competition and the work paid off.

The Kettering Clean Snowmobile Challenge team put new meaning into the phrase “getting it done in a New York minute” this year, preparing for the competition March 10-15 at Michigan Technological University.

The Clean Snowmobile Challenge is the Society of Automotive Engineers' (SAE) newest collegiate design competition. Engineering students from participating schools take a stock snowmobile and re-engineer it to reduce emissions and noise while maintaining or improving performance.

Unable to use the Bosch controller donated by ETAS for their Yamaha Phazer sled, the Kettering team had to switch to a Big Stuff 3 controller, re-engineer their engine to use two controllers and have the sled running within a week.

“Finding out three weeks before competition that our Bosch Engine Control Unit (ECU) wouldn't work on an unevenly firing engine was definitely a big concern,” said Ross Kleman, a senior Mechanical Engineering major from Kalida, Ohio.  “But we found a Big Stuff 3 ECU that could handle the uneven firing engine.  Unfortunately it was designed for an LS1 engine,” Kleman said, “which resulted our problem of losing our sensor during competition.”

“They learned a lot from this experience, despite the sleep deprivation,” said Ray Rust, one of the team advisers and senior academic lab coordinator in Mechanical Engineering at Kettering.

In addition, because all entries in the challenge’s internal combustion division were required to run on bio-fuel, most choosing E85 ethanol, the Kettering teams had to learn how to make the controller deliver one third more energy to retain power. Ethanol fuel delivers one third less energy, according to Rust. “It is amazing how fast they made it all happen,” he said.

The extra effort paid off when Kettering received the Gage Products Award for Best Fuel Economy and the Michigan Snowmobile Endurance Award. Kettering was one of only four teams to finish a 100-mile endurance run powered by ethanol March 12. The endurance run took them to Copper Harbor, the topmost point in Michigan. Despite their best efforts, the team did not place in any other events.

The team was first in fuel economy and performed well in endurance and handling. Their emissions testing did not turn out well due to a failure in the engine’s wiring harness. The harness overheated, catching fire during the testing. This caused the controller to revert to open loop mode, meaning the controller had to estimate fuel needs and it “ran rich,” Rust said.

“The fire did not involve anything vital on the sled,” said Kleman, “we believe the fire occurred because of excess fluid that may have spilled while connecting hoses for the test.  

The team’s biggest set back was the cold start test. The sled started but did not stay running so Kettering failed the cold start test. Kleman feels the last minute change in ECU contributed to the team’s cold start failure. 

“We had to make the Chevrolet engine harness that the original ECU was designed for fit onto the Yamaha engine,” he explained, “and the Chevy engine coolant temperature sensor had to be modified to actually fit onto the Yamaha.  This is where the problem occurred, because the sensor did not snap into place, it just fit snugly and vibration from testing caused it to come loose during testing.”

Overall, Kleman feels the Kettering sled performed very well.  “Less than a handful of sleds never broke down or had to be repaired during the competition - we were one of them,” he said.

Kettering’s team completed the endurance run with the best fuel economy, and despite the fire they completed the emissions test without breaking down. In addition, the sled ran strong and held up great in the acceleration event, Kleman said. 

Echoing Rust’s comment about learning a lot from their experience, Kleman said the best lesson the team took away from the competition was that “in the engineering field, one can be sure to make all of the right calculations and follow the correct processes, but inevitably, problems come up.

“This experience taught me to look ahead for these problems and anticipate what can go wrong and how to adjust,” he said. “On paper, everything can look as if it is going to work, but in the real world there are just some things that cannot be accounted for. Learning how to try and predict those problems is one key to succeeding in engineering,” he added.

“We have as many as 20 students working on this project year-round, and it gets them excited to be able to work on real-world problems and find solutions that can really make a difference,”  said Dr. Greg Davis, professor of Mechanical Engineering and competition advisor at Kettering University. 

“I believe the team did really well in spite of the number of setbacks that we encountered this year.  I know that they are really looking forward to being on top in the competition again next year,”Davis said.

The Clean Snowmobile Challenge is sponsored at Michigan Tech by the Keweenaw Research Center and the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics.

Most of the Clean Snowmobile Challenge events were held at the University's Keweenaw Research Center.

The Challenge brings together industry, snowmobile enthusiasts, faculty and students from across North America, all working toward the common goals of providing hands-on education for young engineers and promoting greener, quieter snowmobiling. The event grew out of a heated snowmobile controversy in Yellowstone National Park, which resulted in then-President Bill Clinton banning sleds in the park altogether. Access was restored by President George W. Bush, but only for guided tours using snowmobiles with the best available technology.

Since then, the challenge has become a model for successful collaboration among government, academia and industry. Major sponsors include the USDA Forest Service, the National Park Service, automotive parts supplier Denso Corp., Emetic Inc., a supplier of emissions-reduction technology, and Aristo, a designer and manufacturer of light sources.

Seventeen teams competed this year:

  • Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y.;
  • Ecole De Technologie Superieure in Montreal;
  • Kettering University in Flint;
  • McGill University in Montreal;
  • Michigan Tech;
  • Minnesota State University at Mankato;
  • Northern Illinois University in DeKalb;
  • the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City;
  • the State University of New York at Buffalo;
  • the University of Idaho in Moscow;
  • the University of Maine in Orono;
  • the University of Waterloo in Ontario;
  • the University of Wisconsin at Madison;
  • the University of Wisconsin at Platteville; and,
  • the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

For more about the Clean Snowmobile Challenge, visit the SAE web site.

Written by Dawn Hibbard